By Daniel de Vise
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, May 26, 2009
Cal Ripken, Iron Man of the Baltimore Orioles, played in 2,632 consecutive baseball games.
Stefanie Zaner, Iron Kid of Darnestown, is closing in on her 2,340th straight day of public school.
The 18-year-old is unlikely to get the standing ovation afforded Ripken for his streak when she arrives at Northwest High School on Friday for the last day of senior classes in Montgomery County.
But hers is a rare accomplishment. Not once in 13 years was Stefanie marked absent: not for a cold, a family vacation, a college visit or a senior skip day. She once went on a freshman trip to Shanghai with the school marching band and boarded the plane with her clarinet only after securing written assurance from the principal that the trip would not count as an absence. She has never broken a bone, thrown up or caught the flu or even a bad cough, she said.
"There were days in high school when I thought she was too tired to get up," said Debbie Zaner, Stefanie's mother. "But by high school, it was up to her. It wasn't up to me."
Perfect attendance for even one year is an elusive goal. Schools are germ factories. Kids play hooky. Families travel. Religious holidays sometimes require attendance elsewhere. Even conscientious students take the occasional personal day to prepare for a test or catch up on homework.
An informal survey of 20 local school systems turned up just one other graduating senior with perfect attendance since kindergarten (officially, 180 days a year, for 13 years, although the exact annual total hinges on snow days): Kristen Waddle, 18, of Brentsville District High School in Prince William County. A third student, Austin White of Mountain View High School in Stafford County, hasn't missed a day since first grade. There might be others.
Kristen's attendance effort in elementary school was nothing short of heroic: She showed up every day despite moving twice and changing schools three times. Staying home was boring -- or so she heard from her brother. There was a no-TV rule, strictly enforced.
"We could sit in our room and read. That was it," she said.
The Prince William senior remembers nearly ending her streak once or twice in high school from sheer exhaustion. An after-school job kept her out until 10 some nights.
"I have these days where I'm like, 'I do not want to be here,' " she said. "I'm just the kid who shows up on those days."
Austin, 18, thinks he knows the moment he decided nothing would keep him from school. It was about fifth grade, the night before a standardized test. "I was puking buckets, and my Mom asked, 'Do you want to stay home?' And I said, 'No, I've got to go to school, I've got to take the test.' "
To keep the streak alive, the Stafford teenager has passed up national baseball tournaments. Even an ankle sprain sophomore year, he said, "wasn't a good-enough reason to stay home."
Stefanie, like Kristen and Austin, didn't enter kindergarten intent on never missing school. The goal crept up on her. Her principal at Darnestown Elementary School, Larry Chep, gave out annual awards for perfect attendance. She won a couple, then found she "really liked being recognized for something." By the end of fifth grade, when Chep recognized her for six consecutive years without absence, Stefanie stood alone.
Chep remembers her as "one of those kids you want in your school." Stefanie returns to Darnestown Elementary each spring to help her fourth-grade teacher take down her classroom and organize her closet.
Iron Man Cal earned his nickname by playing through injury. So did Stefanie, in a way, coming to school sick or, more often, dead tired. She's never had a serious illness or a high fever, she said, a claim to which friends and teachers attest. If anything, sniffly classmates fretted about making her sick. Austin and Kristen, too, are preternaturally healthy.
Stefanie will attend the University of Maryland in its honors program. She wants to be a doctor. She is a straight-A student.
"That's since third grade," her mother said in the family kitchen.
"Since fourth grade," Stefanie interjected.
And just what sort of person earns straight A's for 10 years -- make that nine -- without missing a day of school? A perfectionist. A worrier. An overachiever. Stefanie is all of those, by her own account.
The quest for perfection begat hardship and regret. "I didn't get to do any senior skip days," Stefanie said. "I didn't get to do any college visits."
The past two years "have probably been the most stressful years of my life," she said. It wasn't just the homework, the strain of taking multivariable calculus and studying for Advanced Placement tests. It was the mounting pressure to stay perfect, to get to school every day, to earn only A's.
"There were times I felt completely overwhelmed and thought I was never going to be able to maintain this image that everyone had of me," she said.
Stefanie came to school early many mornings and visited the classroom of Carolyn Diggs, her sophomore math teacher, who became her confidante. She would vent to Diggs when things weren't perfect. The teacher helped her learn to lose a few battles and focus on winning the war.
"Nothing less than 100 percent is good enough for her," Diggs said.
Stefanie seems to draw her motivation from within, although her mother is a former PTA president known for working through daily task lists. Debbie and Rob Zaner, a dentist, recall leaning more on Stefanie's older brother, Jordan.
"Jordan would say, 'If I get the B, I'm happy,' " Rob Zaner recalled. "Stef would say, 'If I don't get the A, my life is coming to an end.' "
Stefanie's friends like her partly for her imperfections, such as her weakness for bling and propensity to show up at tennis practice "diva'd out," in the words of longtime friend Chelsea Hoggle, 17.
Chelsea also recalls the hours Stefanie toiled last year creating photo albums for friends as graduation gifts and the many lunch periods her friend spent visiting teachers and tutoring classmates.
"She doesn't do things halfway," Chelsea said.